Narration and focalisation in the installation art of Jan van der Merwe
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This study is an interdisciplinary exploration. It presents a narratological interpretation of selected installation artworks by the South African artist Jan van der Merwe (b. 1958). In particular, certain peculiarities of narration and focalisation processes are explored with reference to the artworks Biegbak/Confessional (2003) and It’s cold outside (2004); these works are representative of the artist’s large-scale rust-based installation artworks that also incorporate screen elements, usually with looping video imagery, as part of the artworks. The study argues that the manner in which narration and focalisation in the installation artworks proceed problematises these narratological concepts, but more significantly that these concepts generate access to interpretative possibilities that seem to present themselves (because the works seem to contain narratives) and that yield insights that would not be attainable without recourse to narratological methodology and theoretical apparatus. In order to explore the ways in which narratology can contribute to the interpretation of installation art, this art form with its peculiarities is first perused historically. Following this, the visual arts, and especially installation art, are interrogated with reference to the four central narrative elements (indicated by Bal,  1986) of space, time, character and also, briefly event. Specifically, this chapter uses Bal’s (2001a:214) contention as point of departure: that when one undertakes a study of narration in the visual arts, the fabula can be said to emerge from the concretisation and subjectification of space into place, the thickening of time by means of various devices, the semantisation of characters, all synthesised by means of focalisation. This is followed by a theoretical reflection on the narratological concepts of narration, focalisation and also the fabula in order to set up a framework for interpretation. Dimensions of these concepts that are problematised in the context of installation art are highlighted, and the approach towards these concepts is informed by emphasis on the particular application thereof in the context of installation art as a special type of art. Narration, firstly, is conceptualised also with reference to its application to filmic instances, in the sense that narration is understood to emerge from a variety of devices and sources, and that it tends to be de-anthropomorphised. Secondly, the fabula is argued to appear as an extended fabula (Eco’s term  1985) in installation art; furthermore, the fabula is problematised as not being discovered as much as constructed in this art form. Focalisation, thirdly, is addressed with emphasis on its embodied, affective and cognitive functions of synthesising and subjectivising– instead of focusing on its visual, filtering, or selecting functions as often associated with this complex term. The interpretation of the artworks presents, firstly, a subjective understanding of how space and time are narrated and focalised. Space is narrativised as multi-layered, gendered and above all, constructed. The spaces of the works are devoid of human presence (apart from the spectator-participant) and therefore the works are marked by absence. Spatialities in terms of objects and places are understood as transformed and transformative; the processual nature of the materials – rusted metal and video loops – is central to the narration and focalisation of space. The narration and focalisation of time is also suggested by these materials that carry within them temporal manipulations that are equally multi-layered and transformative/transforming. Different temporal zones are distinguished; the now (the time of viewing and the present), the different temporalities planted by the artist (such as the looping video material, temporal suggestion by means of memory generated by the retro appearance of objects) and time suggested by the rusted material that decays together with traces of labour in the rusted surfaces that all serve to “thicken” time. Character in the works was interpreted in three different character categories; these are the artist in his various guises (not least since the works have an autobiographical bent), the absent person(s) suggested by the works, and the viewer-participant who very crucially becomes a character. The narration and focalisation processes ascribed to these characters are perused in light of Fokkema’s (1991) topology of postmodern characters. The artist’s character category was argued to comprise a conflation of the implied artist (as a corollary of the implied author), the historical person and the paratextual elements of the works (the latter based on Genette,  1997). The absent person(s) are explored as ghosted entities, but also in terms of the possibility of them being selves in search of others. This last point informs the character category of the viewer-participant, who is interpreted by means of Cloete (2013) and Ricoeur’s (1992) arguments that the self can also be an other by means of radical empathy and other identificatory processes. The self as a layered, imaginative and complex self-other construction is therefore possible. The resulting fabulae – once time has thickened, space has been concretised into place, character has been semantised and all these elements have been focalised – comprise different levels in order to reflect the notion of the extended fabula. On a first and less abstracted level, the works do not seem to convey more than what is fairly obvious: washing dishes and preparing to leave the house, in Biegbak/Confessional and It’s cold outside, respectively. However, given the transformative and transforming nature of space, time and character, the fabulae become a more subjective interpretation of an iterative sense of longing and even mourning. The study argues that narratological concepts such as narration and specifically focalisation can contribute significantly towards the interpretative possibilities inherent in the installation art of Jan van der Merwe, whose works have been described as story-telling monuments to the unknown. Furthermore, this study propounds that such an approach is likely to find broader applicability to the interpretation of installation art more generally in a way that will allow the interpreter to access the work in a fruitful and insightful manner
- Humanities 
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